Mix Essentials: Relationships in the Mix Part 4

So far we have talked about the big global relationships in our mix, than we talked more specifically about how the drums relate to different instruments, than last week we talked about how the guitars can be setup to blend well with other and how the vocals can be added to that mix, but this week we are adding in one last component, tracks. Tracks have been a growing phenomenon in both live and studio audio. They are often repetitive sounds or sounds that cannot be created live so that the instrumentalists can focus on the highlights like the solos or those little licks they might otherwise be unable to play. Probably the most common track software (outside of common DAWs) is Ableton, which is what we use here at CCC and utilize the wonders of Dante to get it both into monitor world but also at FOH. They are a little less common in the studio world as the artist can often take the extra time to record them individually so as to have a more tailored sound for their album or EP. However you get them, having tracks has become a more integral part of each of our mixes. Often the sounds we relegate to pre-recorded sounds or things we will dub in later, are sometimes things like tambourines or synth bass tracks that add texture and glue our mixes together, but other times they are fillers because we couldn’t find two electric players for that weekend or we just wanted to pre-record something to not have to do it later. It isn’t uncommon to also see gang vocals here or that string section we’ve always wanted in our songs to add that added element of depth in a mix.

As far as processing goes, this can be hit or miss. Depending on the quality of recording/mastering, you may not even need to do much processing because it was likely already processed completely in the studio to which it was created. But I think the key here, outside of not overdoing it, is being sure to acclimate them as you would any other input.  Use gates if the noise floor is higher than you see from other inputs. Setup compression for guitar sounds or drum sounds like you would your live or in studio kits. This will help them to sound natural with the rest of your inputs. The exception here would be if you are using tracks as accompaniment rather than additional members of the band. These are always guidelines, never policies.

At CCC, we use tracks to add texture or fill in a hole we’ve noticed in the song or to free up our musicians to play more fluidly instead of having to worry about playing that repetitive line for the whole song instead of vamping around the chords. Helping them sit well in the mix means I setup similar processing paths for electrics being used as rhythm guitars or the gang vocals. Because these sounds don’t often fit into one particular spot in the spectrum, there isn’t really a way we can create space in the mix, but what we can do is set them up to fill in the holes left by other instruments. I do this by creating a side-chained compressor fed from the vocal group to compress the vocal range from the tracks group. This helps to create space for the vocals but lets them fill in when the vocal group isn’t active. On these inputs is also where I’ll use additive EQ to highlight those sounds in each track I want more of and be sure to use filters to make sure the tops and bottoms aren’t causing any unwanted build-ups on each end of the spectrum. To say this a different way, I’m basically creating a band within the band with the tracks. I treat the tracks as a completely separate band, so each track needs to find its own place in comparison with the other tracks and then I take the whole group and help it sit in nicely with the real band. Doing this allows me to be able to focus on helping the tracks mix compliment the big mix so they don’t get out of control in your mix. I even have a VCA setup so that if something feels off I can reign them in quickly as a group.

Like I said before though, make sure your tracks that are synth bass or percussive instruments compliment the drum set not overwhelm it. Same goes for the bass guitar, the synth bass should be filling the sonic holes, bringing texture, not adding noise to the mix or overdriving your sub. This often means I’m not sending many, if any at all, of my tracks to the subs. This allows unimpeded access to the subs for the kick and bass guitar allowing them to still be the driving force for the low end in my mix. This doesn’t mean that I don’t utilize those synth bass tracks but I know that my main PA speakers have a strong low-mid that those tracks can contribute to. The same goes for the top end of the mix. Is my RTA curve still starting to drop after 8k? Since we’ve started using tracks more aggressively, this is something I’ve really had to keep an eye on. I began to really love low-pass filters with adjustable curves for just this purpose. Often times on synth keyboard tracks there is a lot going on up in this range that I don’t want to translate and get amplified in my mix or for them to take away some of the clarity or presence of my lead vocal. By clearing the air up at the top in some of my tracks I leave all the frequencies we use to increase presence in our band free for the live band to utilize without it becoming overpowering when it’s all put together.

The last relationship I wanted to address with this series was the piano and the vocals/tracks. This is as much preference as it is theory and common practice. How much piano you want in your mix should be something you are discussing with your customer or band leader. Some prefer it to just be present, others prefer it to be treated like a guitar (necessitating it have a more present sound, sort of amped up). I fall into the first camp. We use the piano to setup the notes that people latch onto to sing. That means the piano needs to be present and clearly heard but easily covered up if something more important happens in the song. For me, the piano is a great foundational piece for any mix. Much like the bass guitar establishes a basis for the bottom of your mix, the drum kit establishes the basis for the energy in your mix, I believe the piano establishes a basis for the vocal range in the mix. I may not always be able to distinguish exactly what the piano is doing in one of my mixes but if I turn it off, something sounds off. Something feels awry. The piano is often the first place I go to when things aren’t locking in because like I said before, for me, it certainly seems foundational. This is the balance I work to achieve. How do you mix in your piano? Does it serve as the basis for your vocals?

Hopefully this series has been thought provoking for you. Are there any relationships you are constantly working to balance that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below. If you like what you are reading and want more, be sure to subscribe at this link. You’ll receive an email when new content is published. Have a good one!

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